African Numbers Games and Gambler Motivation: 'Fahfee' in Contemporary South African

African Affairs 117 (466):109-129 (2018)
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Since independence, at least 28 African countries have legalized some form of gambling. Yet a range of informal gambling activities have also flourished, often provoking widespread public concern about the negative social and economic impact of unregulated gambling on poor communities. This article addresses an illegal South African numbers game called fahfee. Drawing on interviews with players, operators, and regulatory officials, this article explores two aspects of this game. First, it explores the lives of both players and runners, as well as the clandestine world of the Chinese operators who control the game. Second, the article examines the subjective motivations and aspirations of players, and asks why they continue to play, despite the fact that their aggregate losses easily outstrip their aggregate gains. In contrast with those who reduce its appeal simply to the pursuit of wealth, I conclude that, for the (mostly) black, elderly, working class women who play fahfee several times a week, the associated trade-off—regular, small losses, versus the social enjoyment of playing and the prospect of occasional but realistic windfalls—takes on a whole new meaning, and preferences for relatively lumpy rather than steady consumption streams help explain the continued attraction of fahfee. This reinforces the need to understand players’ own accounts of gambling utility rather than simply to moralistically condemn gambling or to dismiss gamblers behaviour as irrational.
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